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Dumbo could fly, but could he paint?

By Matthew Artz, Special to the Daily Planet
Saturday April 13, 2002

Trunks full of art draw admirers to Berkeley Art Museum 

How can one distinguish the subtle differences between the elephants Seng Wong and Arum? It’s all in their brush strokes. 

The pachyderms’ paintings, along with those of 14 other Asian elephant artists, premiered before a local audience at a benefit auction Thursday evening at the Berkeley Art Museum, and will remain on display through July 14. 

For those in attendance, the nearly 50 abstract expressionist paintings evoked reactions as diverse as the paintings themselves. 

But for the elephants this remains a straightforward endeavor. They are painting for survival. 

In Thailand, most domesticated elephants had worked for the past 150 years hauling cut trees from the country’s forests. But deforestation became so rampant that in 1990 the Thai government prohibited all logging. This may save what’s left of Thai forests, but it put approximately 3,000 elephants and their trainers (“mahouts”) out of work. 

The mahouts struggled to subsist. Some sold their elephants to circuses while others eked out an existence by teaching their elephants to do tricks for tourists. 

Little did they know how gifted some of their best log haulers were. In U.S. zoos elephants had been painting for two decades; Ruby, an elephant at the Phoenix Zoo had generated as much $100,000 a year from the sale of her paintings. 

Russian-born, New York-based conceptual artists Vitaly Komar and Alex Melamid saw the untapped elephant art market as a potential solution to the plight of Asian elephants and mahouts. 

After learning how to train elephants to paint at an American zoo in 1995, they traveled to Thailand to teach domesticated elephants how to paint and the mahouts how to instruct new elephants in the craft. 

In order to paint, elephants hold a specially designed paintbrush in their trunk, explained Komar. The end of the trunk has a finger-like structure that can grasp the brush and allow the elephants to make strong, controlled stokes. The elephants are given an array of non-toxic water color paints from which to use. It takes an elephant about a half hour to complete a painting. 

Their initial effort in Thailand was so successful, that Komar and Melamid founded the Asian Elephant Art and Conservation Project. Today, the AEACP supports four elephant art academies in Thailand, as well as one each in India and Indonesia. Most of the paintings are sold to local tourists. Thursday’s auction was AEACP’s third, the proceeds from which are donated to both painting and non-painting elephants in need. 

Komar insists that this is more than simply good charity - it is good art. “There are 15,000 muscles in an elephant’s trunk,” said Komar. “It is a far more sophisticated tool than any human hand.” 

Most elephants do not like to paint, according to Komar, but the approximately three dozen who have mastered the art are a breath of fresh air to the abstract art scene. “Elephants are innocent,” said Komar, contrasting them to human painters who he says paint what the art market encourages. “Elephants paint because they enjoy it, and their brush strokes are more exciting.” 

Komar doesn’t have to convince Maxi Lilley of the art’s merit. A self-described “animal rights person,” she placed a winning bid of $851 on a painting by Add, a Thai elephant. “I honestly believe that this is a beautiful work of art, and the context that an elephant made this makes it more exciting,” said Lilley. 

What struck most observers was how each elephant seemed to have a unique style. Some painted with well-defined organized strokes, while others painted more haphazardly, but each painter seemed to have a distinct technique.  

Arin Fishkin, a graphic designer from San Francisco, was more impressed with the disciplined painters.  

“Some paintings seem random, but in others conscious decisions are being made,” said Fishkin. 

Not everyone at the auction was impressed. “I think it’s rubbish,” said Rikke Jorgenson of San Francisco, who commented that the most frightening thing about the exhibit was that the pictures on the wall looked just like the works of respected artists. 

The art provoked as many questions as it did reactions. Those who were ready to concede that the paintings were, in fact, art, could not help but consider how this conclusion would affect not only how they viewed art, but also how they perceived elephants. 

“When you realize how differently the elephants paint, you realize that there is a personality there,” said Berkeley resident Greg Niemeyer.  

This sentiment is not lost on Komar, who while training elephants and mahouts in Thailand observed that when the mahouts understood that elephants could paint they started to respect them more. “They stopped punishing them because they could see their individuality,” said Komar. 

Painting has proven to be a lucrative business for elephants - officials estimate that Thursday’s auction raised about $15,000. But if their work can continue to affect the attitudes of those who care for them and those who experience their art, the elephants may obtain something even more precious than an income.